When my eight-year-old, Tate, is bored, she’ll complain about having nothing to do, but left unanswered, she’ll usually pull out some paper and markers and draw up a story, a restaurant menu, or a game board. If she’s really daring, she’ll scissor apart a cardboard box and transform it into a fairy house. When my five-year-old son, Reed, is bored, he’ll mostly do flips on the couch and sit upside down, or perhaps jump off his top bunk just to see if he can land on two feet, but none of this happens without Kyle and me first enduring a bout of whining about how it’s been so long since he’s played games on our phones (it was usually two days, max). He takes a bit more cajoling into finding something original to do, but left to his own devices, he’ll find amusement.

It’s our two-year-old, Finn, who has never thought of the concept of boredom. He’s happy with his collection of toys, he’ll eagerly tag along with older siblings to do whatever they’re doing, and the backyard serves well as a kingdom to reign. He remains unscathed from the boredom bug, and our older kids were, too, as toddlers.

Boredom is a relatively new concept. In the eighteenth century, no one was bored. If you were bored, you were probably on your way to certain death, because if you wanted to eat, you had to work. There was no time or energy to be bored. In the twenty-first century, we are so used to being amused that we can hardly stand the thought of having nothing to do (for the record, I can’t remember, post-having-kids, ever once having nothing to do). It was actually Charles Dickens who first coined the word boredom, in 1852, with his publication of Bleak House. The irony of his book’s title doesn’t escape notice. Its precursor was a Greek word, acedia, which the Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines as “a state of restlessness and inability either to work or to pray.”1 There was a real danger implied with acedia, because it typically led to sloth—spiritual or emotional apathy.

But this isn’t usually what my kids mean when they say they’re bored. They simply mean they can’t think of anything to do. And if I’m not intentional, my knee-jerk reaction will be to provide some form of entertainment, because heaven forbid we’re not all hooked up to an IV filled with amusement to get our kids through the day. Turning on some sort of screen is the quickest route to ending whines and complaints; this I know—but living according to our values rarely involves a shortcut.

If boredom is simply a lack of stimulation and the unpleasant feelings that go with it, then the antidote is not finding a source of entertainment—it’s finding motivation to brush away those unpleasant feelings. If I quickly solve my kids’ boredom problem with movies in the car, the next great video game, a slew of extracurricular activities, or even lying on the floor with them to serve as a playmate because no other kids are around, we’re short-circuiting what could ultimately be a beautiful thing. History has shown that boredom is the impetus to creativity.

Psychology Today says, “The antidote to boredom is to provide children with an environment that lets them experience autonomy (the ability to work a little on their own), control (the right to have a say over what they do), challenge (a small push beyond their comfort zone), and intrinsic motivation (the motivation that comes from inside them).”2 If my home is already relatively equipped to handle boredom, just as it’s equipped to handle the autonomous educational exploration mentioned in chapter 27, I’m able to freely say, as a parent, “Go find something to do.” Many parents I know even counter every use of the word bored with a chore. A house could get clean in no time with a brood of bored children.

Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, once reported that his uneventful childhood gave him the necessary tools to be creative. “I make my living being creative and have always assumed that my potential was inherited from my parents. But for allowing my creativity to flourish, I have to credit the soul-crushing boredom of my childhood,” he said.

He also pointed out the fact that it’s not just children who have a hard time dealing with boredom. Adams said, “Lately I’ve started worrying that I’m not getting enough boredom in my life. If I’m watching TV, I can fast-forward through commercials. If I’m standing in line at the store, I can check email or play ‘Angry Birds.’ When I run on the treadmill, I listen to my iPod while reading the closed captions on the TV. I’ve eliminated boredom from my life.”3

I may rarely feel bored, but how well do I cope with waiting in line, waiting on someone young to finish going to the bathroom, or generally not getting to spend my time the way I want? I don’t think I’m bored, but maybe I am more than I realize. Entertainment, in all its forms, is so easily accessible in our technology-soaked culture; we can hardly imagine a life where it’s not an arm’s reach away. My immediate reaction to waiting in the carpool line is to check Instagram or my Facebook feed, or to pin stuff on Pinterest. It’s to clog my fingers and brain cells with busyness, or at least the illusion of busyness. Like, like, like, pin, pin, pin. Keep busy.

My best ideas come when I space out. It’s a cliché, but it’s true; I really do have my greatest ideas in the shower. Kyle is no longer surprised when I pop out of the bathroom, towel still around my wet hair, and run over to the laptop to buy a domain name or two. I’m not even aware that I’m in search of another blog post or book idea or new online venture, and one will slam into my brain while I’m on the open road, mindlessly driving. I’ve come up with some parts of this book while sautéing carrots and onions for dinner.

Jonah Lehrer, author of the book Imagine, argues that science points to receiving more “aha!” moments when you’re relaxed. Or bored.

So as a parent, it’s good for me to remember that entertainment is not a right. It’s a privilege—and often, depriving my children of this privilege is the best thing for them. But this is just as true for me; my brain needs ample time to stare off into space. Who knows what LEGO creation my kids will come up with, and who knows what next book idea I’ll find waiting for me deep in the recesses of my bored subconscious?

Endnotes:

1. Wikipedia, s.v. “acedia,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acedia.

2. Michael Ungar, “Let Kids Be Bored (Occasionally),” Nurturing Resilience (a blog from Psychology Today), June 4, 2012, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/nurturing-resilience/201206/let-kids-be-bored-occasionally.

3. Scott Adams, “The Heady Thrill of Having Nothing to Do,” Wall Street Journal, August 6, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903454504576486412642177904.html#articleTabs=article.

4. “Jonah Lehrer examines dangerous creativity myths and the history of innovation,” The Colbert Report (video), April 17, 2012, http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/412742/april-17-2012/jonah-lehrer

Excerpt taken from Notes from a Blue Bike. Used with permission.

Tsh Oxenreider is the founder and main voice behind TheArtofSimple.net (formerlySimpleMom.net). She’s the author of Organized Simplicity, One Bite at a Time, and the much-anticipated Notes from a Blue Bike.  Tsh is also main host of The Simple Mom Podcast, regular contributor to incourage.me, and an advocate for Compassion International. A graduate of the University of Texas, Tsh currently lives in Bend Oregon, with her family.

Publication date: December 27, 2013